Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oh God! Book 6:24-26

At my friend Ann's funeral, the rabbi started his talk by saying that Ann had made him promise that there would be no mention of God at the funeral.  She did not believe in God, she loved to debate whether God existed, and her willingness to acknowledge publicly her atheism grew stronger in recent years.  When she and I went to the spa in Ojai four years ago, she was reading Christopher Hitchens' tome, God is Not Great a little light reading for a short holiday. After her cancer diagnosis, she joked with me that God was apparently punishing her for reading books like that.  But in the end, her disease did not cause her to adopt a faith she never had in order to find comfort.  I know that she struggled with the issues of faith under the bleak circumstances of her last years, but concluded, for example, that she did not have faith due to lack of the religiosity gene that was a matter of discussion in recent years.

I could not finish God is Not Great,  but I did read Richard Dawkins" The God Delusion.  I found the tone annoying. Why do vocal atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens  (who as one might expect also has strong opinions about his own  terminal cancer) think they are the smartest people on earth? However,  I thought some of the ideas in Dawkins' book were intriguing and as a result started to lean toward atheism as well. Other than in my young childhood when I went to parochial school,  I have never been much of a believer.  Although I was raised Roman Catholic, my view of religion could for a long time be summed up in the religion I thought about starting in college called the "apathists"--because we just do not care about religion. Perhaps, like Ann,  I do not have the religiosity gene either, particularly given how hard my mother tried to get me to believe and observe, which is why I forced my religiously unaffiliated husband to go through a Catholic wedding, including weeks of "education" before we could get married in the Catholic Church.  And the Dawkins' book explained that the origins of life as we know it are the result of evolution, which makes  as much sense as, and maybe even more than,  a divine creator.  I am also not impressed by the argument that God must exist given the pervasiveness of religious beliefs.  Perhaps as a species we are too wedded to notions of causes for what we see around us rather than the seeming randomness of mutation and selection. And humankind is abundant in its ideas about deity, which I have done my best to study over the years, reading people like Karen Armstrong and Bart Erdman.  Whether there is one true God or deity exist in animal spirits is a question of faith, not empiricism or rational thought and argument.

I look at nature and its wonders and do not see a divine creator/source.  The only thing that gives me pause as to whether there is a divine creator is music, particularly classical music.  Evolution could have led us to produce and love a pounding beat and simple melodies.  But the complex harmonies that derive from the musical scale that we perceive with such pleasure,  as well as complex rhythms, suggest to me divine intervention.  How could this combination of events, which are so organized in structure, be the result of evolution?  But I am just musing, which is what I do here.

As for my friend Ann, I need to listen to my favorite music to cope with her death.  She did not like classical music.  Country was her thing, one of the few areas where we disagreed.  And she would not want someone invoking God to mourn her.  But I am comforted by the music of  John Rutter which is so holy and reverent and ultimately ironic because John Rutter is also not a believer. (He describes himself in a 2009 interview with Alan Macfarlane as "friend, fellow traveller, and agnostic supporter of the Christian faith".)  This song below was composed for the 1981 funeral of John Rutter's mentor, Edward Chapman, and is based on text from Numbers 6: 24-26  (part of the Priestly Blessing) which makes it so appropriate for mourning an atheist who was born a Jew. Listen to where the Rutter version resolves up on the last "peace" which I hope is what Ann has found, even if she is  in God's countenance and arguing with him/her whether he/she exists. I love you Ann and miss you beyond words.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Farewell to Ann

What do I write to capture the essence of one of my best friends in life, who passed away yesterday morning (Friday, February 11. 2011) at the age of 55 from metastatic lung cancer. I want to remember all my times with her over the years, but my memory is flooded with images from the past three years. During that time,  she vanquished the survival odds of originally 8 months after the discovery of the stage 4 cancer.  She found out about the cancer on a January day when she and I had just had lunch at Urth Caffe in Santa Monica, one of our favorite places to meet.  At the end of lunch, she received an urgent call from her doctor and ran out to learn her fate.  Since then, she has been in and out of surgery, chemo, radiation and other hospital visits.  She never really was able to travel or do those bucket list sorts of things.  But we did try to spend as much time together as we could, knowing the end would be here much sooner than we had thought when we became friends so many years ago.

I met Ann over 21 years ago.  We were both lawyers at a law firm in LA.  She had moved from NY a few years after her first husband died, on the eve of their daughter's birth, from an illness that typically does not kill people.  She was a single mom, a widow, practicing law in a male dominated place.  I had my own issues with the firm, which did not really know how to deal at that time with mothers who planned to practice law full time. I had two children, one a newborn, when I decided that I needed to make Ann my friend.  So I went to her and suggested we have lunch.  Our neuroses meshed so well that I knew I had the makings of a BFF.  And I was not disappointed.

My son and Ann's daughter were around the same age so we did play dates together for a few years. I am sad that I do not remember those playdates, even though Ann tried to remind me of places we went, such as Disneyland, I believe.  I remember being at her house one Channukah and eating potato latkes that Ann claimed she did not know how to make but turned out delicious.  Another year we went to a local synagogue with the kids to listen to a Channukah play.  I am not Jewish but I always tried to expose my children to the religion of their paternal grandfather.  I figured I better turn my job over to someone who was Jewish, like Ann, when my young son mistakenly said that Jews do not believe in God. He had understandably muddled a statement I had made in answer to one of his questions that Jews, unlike Christians,  did not believe that Jesus was the son of God.  Trying to explain comparative religion to adults is hard enough, let alone to a child.

Ann struggled with her weight most of her life which also appealed to one of my neuroses, since I too have always felt fat.  After moving to LA, she tried to get out and date but not much happened until she met her second husband at our  firm.  After a few years, they decided to marry and combine their families. He had two daughters from his first marriage who were about the same age as Ann's daughter.  As these things happen, Ann and I stopped seeing each other for children's playdates and other activities.  But we regularly talked and had lunch, which was always a challenge when Ann started her strict, some (including Ann) would call obsessive, Weight Watchers diet that led her to lose a lot of weight about 10 years ago.  I, on the other hand, unable to be obsessive, continued to gain weight in my enthusiastic embrace of slovenly middle age.

About 4 years ago in March 2007, Ann and I went to a spa in Ojai together for several days.  We became inspired by our foray into healthfulness and decided to try to hike together.  As life happens, we did not discuss the hiking again until the fall of 2007 after a trip Ann took to Paris.  She said we would have to wait until her bursitis got better.  She was having pain in her hip and said it had hurt to walk in Paris, although she did it anyway.  In January, 2008, when the bursitis was not getting better and the pain was still bad, she had a CT scan.  The results of that test were why the doctor called during our lunch at Urth Caffe.  Her femur and hip were disintegrating from the tumors, which had originated in her lung.  Other than the pain in her hip, she had no symptoms.

When I first found out about her cancer, I vowed to do whatever I could to make whatever time she had left funny.  My thought was that you can't cry about death if you are laughing.  I also started to think of what my life would be like without my BFF.  I was irritated about the unfairness.  But I also became more vigilant.  I made my husband see a doctor when he had pain in his hip.  It turned out he had early stage, treatable bladder cancer, although the hip pain was unrelated. (Thanks Ann for helping us find that) I also thought I had cancer about a year after Ann was diagnosed.  I was so tired all the time so I went to several doctors to try to find out what was wrong with me.  They all assured me that I was fine but unfortunately that was not the case.  Like Ann, my cancer was in a later stage when it was finally found.  Unlike Ann, however, mine was not immediately deemed to be terminal.  Indeed, my oncologist called it curable.  Ann came to visit me when I had chemo, even though she was confined to a wheel chair.  She made me laugh, turning the tables.  But we both knew that she was certainly dying and I was not (at least not yet).  Now there are the makings for some potent "survivor's guilt"! But I have pushed it aside as much as possible because I needed to spend as much time with this wonderful person before our "forever" was over.  It became harder, though, from Ann's end.  She had trouble with pain and mental focus in the past year or so.  I would call and get voicemail. I would send emails.   Sometimes it took weeks before I would hear back.  I heard from her right after Christmas and things seemed bad.  She was in pain and could not talk for long.  After a month of trying to reach her, I got in touch with her brother who told me that she had been taken off chemo.  I called and luckily got her husband who told me to come over.  I went immediately.  That was about ten days ago.

On that visit, Ann was home in hospice care but still able to talk, although she fell asleep mid sentence in a story about her beloved daughter, who is now also a lawyer.  I went to visit again earlier this week.  She was in tremendous pain, barely able to talk and begging me (and her husband and her brother) in the muted voice she could muster to "help me, please".  Her husband was able to get her new home hospice care that would provide an IV with  palliative pain medication and the last time I saw her on Wednesday, she was mostly sleeping, and clearly much more comfortable.  I talked to her that day and although she did not answer, I felt she knew I was there and I hope she knew in my own small way by supporting her husband in his discussion with the hospice nurse I did do a little something to help her at the end.

I hope in time that my memories of Ann return to the days we thought we would always be in each others' lives.  Although during those days, even though we both considered each other close friends, we did not talk about our feelings for each other.  In the past three years, both Ann and I have lost that inhibition.   I could not tell her enough how much I loved her and how much she meant to me.  And she said the same to me.  One of the last things we said to each other was "I love you, honey"  "I love you too".  That's the one thing I must remember, the one thing of essence.

Ann with Wrigley  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Go Go Kyoto- December 9, 2010

Our taxi adventure ended and we arrived at Ginkakuji 銀閣寺 (not Kinkakuji  金閣寺) ready to take on the hordes of school children on tours.  And hordes there were.  Unlike Kenninji, which was relatively quiet, Ginkakuji was full of beautiful sights which we saw on an assembly line.  You are directed to go one way only up the hill to the top to get an overview of the temple.  We were followed by a couple of American men who breathed heavily every time I stopped to take a picture.  But they were not alone in their race through the grounds.  Young teenage boys and girls ran up and down the hill as if on a chase, shouting and giggling salaciously only as children that age can.  We also were followed by a screaming newborn baby belonging to a young French speaking couple, who tried everything to stop the crying.  Oh typical tourist experiences, I missed you so! (Apparently if you go early in the morning, you miss the school kids. And, we heard Kinkakuji was even more crowded, despite being a 1955 reconstruction of the original golden pavilion rather than the real thing)

Notwithstanding all of the clamor,  Ginkakuji was a gorgeous place and well worth the time, particularly for the view from the top and the famous sand gardens. It is another World Heritage site and two of the buildings, the Togudo Hall and the Silver Pavilion date from the 15th century.

Hordes of Japanese students on their way to Ginkakuji

sand garden at Ginkakuji
sand tower (Moon viewing Platform) at Ginkakuji
Sea of Silver Sand (Ginshadan) & Moon-viewing Platform (Kogetsudai)
Another view of Sea of Silver Sand 

The Hondo (left ) and Togudo Hall (right) at Ginkakuji
going up the hill at Ginkakuji
Silver Pavilion to the left- view from top of hill
sand garden with sand tower to left behind tree
Silver Pavilion
After a noodle lunch in a nearby restaurant full of chaperoned students, we headed down the Philosopher's Path toward Nanzenji. The Philosopher's Path was under construction in some places but generally runs right along a canal for a little over a mile.  We were treated to autumn colors but in the spring the Path is popping with cherry blossoms.  It is reportedly named after 20th century philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who used the walk along the path to Kyoto University to meditate and think philosophical thoughts.  We stopped for homemade cake and coffee at Pomme along the Path, and I spent a good deal of the walk thereafter thinking about the pleasure of eating coffee cake.  We also saw a cute shop along the way with a wonderful boy's kimono on display and some antique women's kimonos.  At the end of the Path, we came upon a herd of cats.  Go figure! Most philosophical creatures I know.

The head of the Path

Antique Kimono Store near Path
Boy's Kimono near Philosopher's Path

Cats on the Philosopher's Path
It started raining so we skipped a further tour of Nanzenji and headed back to our hotel to spend the evening poking around the shops at the Kyoto station for our last evening there.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Kyoto Taxi Adventure

On our third day in Kyoto, we decided we wanted to visit the Temple of the Silver Pavilion- Ginkakuji in the Higashiyama area near the Philosopher's walk.  We needed to get a taxi so I asked my husband to get a card from the concierge at the hotel to tell the taxi driver in Japanese where we wanted to go.  He forgot and this movie shows what happened.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thanks for the Memories

From time to time, readers of this blog have been kind enough to comment that they think I am a good writer.  Some have even encouraged me to write a book, and of those, most suggest a memoir.  While I am flattered, I am of the school, like Neil Genzlinger in NY Times Book Review this past weekend, that the prerequisite for a memoir is that you have done something memorable.  There is a glut of memoirs about topics such as illness, addiction, and dysfunctional families.  I do not think any experiences I have had with any of those topics, or anything else for that matter, makes me so unique that I am entitled to put those experiences in memoir form. Perhaps our view of uniqueness has been skewed by our need to individuate in the ever growing population which is itself increasingly connected by electronic devices.  And just as we now know that each snowflake is not necessarily unique (and a lot of snowflakes makes you miserable as my friends on the East Coast are experiencing with this year's snowpocolapse), very few people's lives, and certainly not mine, are unique enough to warrant a memoir.  Indeed I believe that we all need to stop trying to view ourselves as unique and instead think of ourselves in context, culturally and historically.That way we may see what our own lives teach us as being part of  the wave of the present, past and the future.

So, while thinking about memoirs and trying to figure out recently which generation American I am (3rd), I have become fascinated with my family tree and how events in my life seem unconsciously to mirror that history.  I have not been interested in these issues since I was a child, doing genealogy or genetics projects for school.  But having stared in the face of the great beyond, I think a lot about my legacy now, particularly what I will leave for my children and my grandchildren.  The desire for legacy appears to be strong, although it is clearly the springboard for economic invention in the genealogy biz, i.e those who would make money off of our need to connect with our bloodlines, remember and be remembered.  I suspect this desire may be universal, given that family lines are important in most cultures.

For me, there have been a few "aha" moments in looking at the research some of my cousins and siblings have done into our genealogy.  Here are some of those moments:
  • I knew I had an aunt named Kate, but until I saw the 1920 census listing her as "Kathyrn" and later records showing her as "Kathryn", I had no idea that I had chosen the same, not as typical, spelling for my daughter's name as that of my aunt's. 
  • My daughter's middle name is a variant of another aunt's name, Elizabeth, who I believe lived a block away from us when I was growing up but with whom we never really interacted.  My vague memory was that there was some scandal or mystery about her.  She got divorced at a time when divorce was considered a serious transgression, particularly among Roman Catholics such as my family.  She lived to be almost 95, reportedly "liked the men", and dated someone 30 years her junior when she was 80 because men her own age "could not keep up" with her.  She also had a problem repaying debts which seems to ring true for what I vaguely remember about why we did not see her much.  Perhaps she owed my dad some money or he was afraid she would want more money.
  • I recall being told that my paternal grandmother's maiden name was Weber, presumably by my father or someone of that generation.  However, the family tree report shows that her name was Weaver.  Interestingly, weber is the German word for weaver.  So there is still a mystery.  Did her father's family change the name at Ellis Island?  The 1920 census shows that her mother (my great grandmother)  was born in the United States in New York although other records suggest my grandmother's mother was born in Germany.  If my great grandmother were born in the US, did her relationship with my great grandfather have something to do with the name change? Or was there some other reason related to being German living in the US in the mid to late 1800s?
  • Here are some pictures of my parents at their wedding in 1939 and my paternal grandparents at dates unknown, although presumably in the early part of the 20th century, given how old (or young) they look.  

Mom and Dad's wedding 1939

Poppy Scoobydoobeach
Nanny Scoobydoobeach